MLB insiders discuss Mets’ contact-heavy offensive approach and whether it’s sustainable
The Mets are playing a brand of baseball in 2022 that makes them as lovable as they are successful so far. To their fans, obviously, but really to anyone who thinks the sport got out of whack in recent years by prioritizing power to such a point that record-breaking strikeout totals were seemingly deemed acceptable.
Nobody hated that notion more than Buck Showalter, even when he wasn’t managing in recent years, so maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that these Mets are the definition of scrappy offensively.
After all, pitching and defense aside, they’re winning games by putting the ball in play more than most teams, especially with two strikes and/or two outs, even if it means choking up on the bat or slapping the ball to the opposite field to beat an infield shift.
Consider the fact that their total of 54 infield hits was the most of any team in baseball by a whopping margin of 19, as of Friday. That speaks to their additional speed this season but also to their desire to simply make contact.
To which Bill Ripken, former player and current MLB Network analyst, says thank you.
“I appreciate the Mets right now,” Ripken said by phone this week. “I think it’s a mindset and it’s paying off for them. I think major league hitters are good enough, for the most part, not to strike out if they set their mind to it.
“But we’ve gone through a phase in the game where guys were going up to the plate swinging for the downs and it was OK to strikeout. I’m not sure where that mindset came from but it’s not one I participate in. The Mets are showing what can be done by getting in the batter’s box and battling.”
Ripken was referring mostly to RBI situations, where the Mets have thrived this season, in stark contrast to the last couple of years.
Indeed, they’ve been among the league leaders all season in hitting with two outs and runners in scoring position, and they lead the majors in batting average with two strikes.
“In those situations you throw all the techniques out and dig down and compete,” said Ripken. “It might be ugly but ugly knocks with two outs and runners in scoring position are a beautiful thing.”
Case in point was Mark Canha’s soft single over shortstop with the bases loaded and two outs in the first inning of Thursday’s 4-1 win over the Washington Nationals, as he managed to pull his hands in on an inside fastball and muscle it far enough for a 2-0 lead.
That it measured 73 mph in exit velocity was as much a testimony to Canha being aware rookie Joan Adon’s two-seamer would run in off the plate as it was a bit of good fortune.
It was also somewhat typical of how the Mets have hit this season. That is, their hard-hit rate, as measured by MLB Statcast, ranked 27th out of 30 teams going into Friday’s play.
That seems rather stunning for a team that ranks fifth in the majors in runs scored. But should it also be considered evidence that perhaps the Mets’ production isn’t sustainable over 162 games?
People who study such numbers say it can’t be dismissed as insignificant.
Sarah Langs, a researcher and reporter for MLB.com who has earned national recognition for her expertise in analytics, explained why, starting with how hard hits are measured as anything at 95 mph or higher in exit velocity.
“At 95-plus mph (the numbers say) you’re going to hit .500 and slug in the .800s or higher,” Langs said by phone. “If you don’t hit the ball hard, at 94 mph or lower, you’re going to hit and slug in the .200s.
“This is the reason we focus on these numbers. I think a lot of people put it in the category of, ‘oh, it’s just another analytic,’ but I would say this has been the case throughout baseball history. It’s just that now we can measure it.
“So far the Mets have been placing balls in play very well, not finding gloves, and that is a skill in itself. The reason it’s working for them is they’re making a ton of contact. But the No. 1 way to succeed at the plate is to hit the ball hard. That’s why you start to worry — is it sustainable?”
Langs, who appears regularly on SNY’s Baseball Night In New York program, noted that the Mets currently have the fourth-best contact rate in the majors, a huge jump from 24th last season, which goes a long way toward explaining why they’ve been so good at driving in runs.
Factor in more team speed and it has looked like an entirely different offense. Langs said those factors can offset the hard-hit percentage to some degree.
“(Starling) Marte beating out that ground ball to start the (ninth-inning) rally in Philly is kind of emblematic of their offense,” Langs said. “Stealing bases, infield singles, it felt like those things were missing from Mets teams the last few years. That is another thing isn’t part of hitting the ball hard but speaks to an offense firing on all cylinders.
“That’s why I’m reserving judgment. They’re a very good team. It’s just a question of whether the way they’re scoring is sustainable.”
To that point Ripken says the hard-hit rate could simply be a direct result of the Mets’ approach at the plate.
“I think it’s a product of making the effort to put the ball in play,” he said. “If you’re second in baseball with two-strike knocks, it tells me they’re shortening up a little bit and taking a shot the other way to make contact.
“I like what (Jeff) McNeil said: ‘I don’t care if I hit it 40 mph if I hit it the other way (to beat a shift).’ I like that attitude and I think it becomes contagious. If you see guys grinding to make contact, you don’t want to be the guy who flails at a pitch three times and walks back to the dugout.”
Both Ripken and SNY analyst Todd Zeile also make the point that even as strikeouts around the game have risen dramatically, championship teams like the Kansas City Royals in 2015, the Houston Astros in 2017, and the Boston Red Sox in 2018 all were among the best teams in baseball those seasons in not striking out.
“I think the hard-hit rate matters,” Zeile said. “But striking out less matters as well. Putting the ball in play matters a lot.
“So I wouldn’t say it’s sustainable for all teams, but I think this is sustainable for the Mets because they’re built for success on great starting pitching, a solid bullpen, and good defense. They’re not trying to lead the league in home runs or runs scored necessarily.
“Their contact style works because they’ve got guys at different spots in the lineup, like (Brandon) Nimmo, McNeil, Canha, who have the ability to lengthen at-bats, put the ball on the ground against the shift and use some speed to put pressure on the defense.
“If you had one guy doing that in a lineup of feast-of-famine guys, it doesn’t work. But this is a balanced lineup. That’s why it’s working. I think it’s a formula that can continue to work for this team.”
It remains to be seen just how significant that low hard-hit rate proves to be, but for now there’s one thing everyone seems to agree on, from purists like Ripken to fans who spent the last couple of seasons pulling their hair out over the Mets’ offensive futility: It’s refreshing to watch a team that prioritizes putting the ball in play over everything else
Jobber Wiki author Frank Long added to this report.